How to Explain RPA To Your Granny

This article is written by: Automation Boutique

Remember when children used to believe that there was a tiny man inside the radio speaking? Or when they checked the back of the TV looking for the show host? We are back to those days, and again, it is due to a new technology: Robotic Process Automation (RPA).

Where is the robot in robotic process automation?

The robot is not a physical one. There is no metallic little man walking around and clicking buttons inside the computer. The “robot” is just a set of instructions that the computer follows on its own, without the need for a human to do it.

Your granny will surely remember when people used to grind corn into flour by using water mills propelled by a nearby river. That is automation. The movement of the mill (whose energy was supplied by the passing water current) could be called a robot. You see, the robot is not the mill itself, which would be equivalent to the computer (as the water current would be to electricity). The robot is the virtual (not physically existing) “executer” of the automated action, in this case, milling. We could imagine a little man pushing the mill incessantly. In the RPA world, we call this imaginary man a robot.

What does this “automation” thing mean?

Automation consists of mechanising actions so that they can be executed without the need for a human to be present or to spend time and effort on them. Put simply, automation is making someone or something else do it for you. Remember when previous generations built a scarecrow using straw and their granny’s hat to keep birds and wild boars away from plantations (as grandma can tell you, birds and wild boars love to destroy grain fields)? Imagine having to do that yourself: being out all night posing in the darkness to keep those naughty beasts away from your corn! That is not what the old generations did. Instead, they automated animal scaring.

After understanding who the “robot” is and what automation means, we can move on to the only word left: process.

What is this mysterious process that is being automated?

In the case of a watermill, the process is grinding corn into flour. In the case of a scarecrow, the process is, you guessed it, standing in the field day and night while looking scary. In RPA, the process could be typing (writing on the computer, in case grandma is giving you a funny look) to send an email (a letter sent over the internet), or it could be going to a website (a website is like one of those internet places where your teenage grandson appears on pictures sticking his tongue out) and finding some information in it. All of this, or any other pre-defined, repetitive, and rule-based computer tasks, can be automated, just like previous generations automated grinding and scaring animals away. In automation, rules can be as complex as needed, but must leave no room for ambiguity. If ambiguity cannot be avoided, hyper-automation is required, which is, judging by Granny’s face (see picture above), best left for after naptime (and a whole other article).

So here we have it. Robotic Process Automation: We use a robot (imaginary little man or, more seriously, a set of instructions given to a computer) to take a process (some work to do, usually divided into discrete steps) and automate it (do the work for us).

February 27, 2024

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